A view from the nozzle end of the problem

CarolinaFireJournal - By Peggy Sweeney
By Peggy Sweeney
01/23/2014 -
“Training them to deal with trauma, stress, and grief is no less important than training them to be safe on the fire ground.”

— Peggy Sweeney

Suicide is a major, preventable public health problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2010 it was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 38,364 deaths. Based on data about suicides in 16 National Violent Death Reporting System states in 2009, 33.3 percent of suicide decedents tested positive for alcohol, 23 percent for antidepressants, and 20.8 percent for opiates, including heroin and prescription pain killers. One of the major risk factors for suicide is depression, or a substance-abuse disorder — often in combination with other mental disorders. More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors. (Moscicki, 2001)


Photo courtesy of Robert R. Devonshire, Jr/Photo-5 Imagery

How Does Depression Feel?

To help you understand the severity of emotional trauma, I would like to paint a mental picture of what my severe depression felt like in 1985. I have labeled it the “well of depression.” It is a very deep, very dark place, cold and lonely. The walls of this well are slimy and moss-covered. It smells rancid and the floor is broken into huge, jagged junks, you are not able to maintain a stable footing. As you look up from the depths of the well, you can only see a faint glimmer of light. No matter how hard you try, you cannot pull yourself up and out. The safety rope that dangles in the center of the well is just out of your reach. Your screams for help appear to fall on deaf ears. Your once secure and normal life continues to slowly plummet into the depths of deep despair. You feel as though you have lost control of everything you value in life. You doubt your self-worth. Everything appears hopeless.

Why is There Suicide in the Fire Service?

Fire fighting contributes many elements of stress and trauma that greatly exaggerate depression. As a firefighter you are placed in life-threatening situations and witness human injury and death regularly. Yet no one else in your department seems to be troubled by these events or talks about the recurring nightmares that you experience as the result of these horrific scenes. You quickly learn to hide your feelings so that you are not bullied for your weakness.

“I was a bad ass firefighter, a seasoned veteran, even looked up to. How could I be seen as weak? Simply put, I couldn’t. So I pushed on, I drank more, worked more and everything around me began to crack and fall apart.” (Casey, 2012)

Becoming injured or disabled as the result of your hazardous job may also cause depression. Because you can no longer function as a firefighter, you believe that you are of no value to your family and community or that you have a purpose in life. You may be dealing with seemingly insurmountable personal problems such as a divorce, chronic illness of a family member, financial worries, the death of your child, or substance abuse. As each new traumatic incident or personal struggle occurs, you slip deeper and deeper into depression. It is no wonder that the fire service has one of the highest suicide rates in America. Sadly, the numbers are escalating at an alarming rate.

“One of the biggest challenges in treating a first responder is getting them to ask for help. The stigma that comes along with seeking help is the fear of being ‘judged’ by our peers and losing our job.”

Meuer (2013)

Where Can Firefighters Go For Help if it is Not Offered Through Their Fire Department or Agency?

Although some national fire organizations downplay the role of critical incident stress management/debriefing, I strongly believe that it is a vital component of mitigating posttraumatic stress. Other resources include:

  • Department chaplaincy programs
  • Counselors experienced in post traumatic stress and the fire service culture
  • Educational programs related to traumatic stress and suicide prevention/intervention
  • Bereavement programs for fire departments and families touched by suicide.

“Go to the Veterans of Foreign Wars lodge or chapter or buddy up to a Vietnam veteran in the community where the firefighter is living. Vietnam vets get it in spades and have their own cultural story to tell about what they have seen and lived through with their PTSD. There is a symbiotic relationship between war trauma a soldier is exposed to and a firefighter’s exposure to the front line woundings in their community.”

— Shannon Pennington (2012)

The following websites should be made available to every firefighter, police, EMS, and 911 dispatcher:

I strongly believe that fire departments must recognize the importance of programs that focus on depression, posttraumatic stress, suicide prevention, and coping with loss and grief. No longer can job-related stress in the fire service be ignored. It is the duty and responsibility of every fire service officer to provide for and enhance the emotional wellness of his or her department as well as themselves. Without the support and dedication of everyone, traumatic stress and grief will continue to take a toll on firefighters and their families.

Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.


Casey, T. O. (2012). The slow death of a firefighter. Retrieved from

Meuer, J. (2013) Damaged: A first responder’s experiences handling post traumatic stress disorder. Retrieved from

Moscicki EK. Epidemiology of completed and attempted suicide: toward a framework for prevention. Clinical Neuroscience Research, 2001; 1: 310-23.

Pennington, S. (2012). Cutting the onion on firefighter depression and suicide. Retrieved from

Other articles pertinent to this topic:

Firefighters at Risk: The Negatives Effects of Trauma on the Human Spirit

Peggy Sweeney has been an advocate for the mental and emotional wellness of emergency first responders for over 20 years. She is founder and president of The Sweeney Alliance, a non- profit company that offers the “First Step Hope: Not All Wounds Are Visible” curriculum and publishes the “Grieving Behind the Badge” blog ( Sweeney is a mortician, bereavement educator, member of the Comfort (Tx.) Volunteer Fire Department and a former EMT-B. She can be reached at,[email protected].
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